Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Most Creative Place On Earth - Iceland

a post from last year...They have more professional musicians per capita than any other country in the world. More authors, more poets, more screenwriters, more directors, more playwrights per capita than anywhere else. One in every ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime - in Reykjavik the percentage is even higher. The Scandinavian crime writing boom has been a feature of the mystery scene for half a decade but what is even more remarkable is the fact that Iceland with a population of 300,000 (an over estimation because many Icelanders live abroad) holds its own with Sweden, Norway and Denmark who have thirty times, twleve times and fifteen times as many people respectively. Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Arnaldur Indridason won the Golden Dagger Award for mystery writing. One of my favourite bands in the 80's was the Sugarcubes, in the 90's Bjork came along, in the 2000's I only stopped listening to Sigur Ros when I discovered that Gwyneth Paltrow had given birth to their album Takk which ruined that record forever. One of my favourite current bands is Reykjavik's own Of Monsters and Men who were, of course, hugely influenced by Bjork (right in a BBC doc)
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I think I've proved that Iceland punches well above its weight in the arts, the question is how it does this. I don't know the answer but I have some theories based more on Wikipedia than my own brief visit to Iceland at the end of the 90's. According to Wikipedia Iceland has more bookstores and libraries per capita than anywhere else in the world and the average Icelander reads more books. Long dark winters certainly would encourage book reading or practicing a musical instrument or writing a book (or drinking heavily). I also think it helps that Iceland does not have a strong culture of sport. Iceland has no professional football league (of any code) and this is a good thing. Spectator sport is a massive time suck, time that arguably could be spent better doing something creative for yourself. People who have a job only have a finite amount of leisure hours a week so it stands to reason that the crazier a place is about sport the less creative the population. Other theories? 1) Sagas. Iceland's literary tradition of Sagas goes back 1000 years and I've been told that many Icelanders of the older generation can still narrate and perform tales from the Sagas from memory. 2) TV. I don't know what the TV situation is in Iceland but I'll bet Icelanders watch less television than Americans or Europeans. 3) Weather. The poor weather in Iceland encourages indoor activities like reading, practicing with your garage band, writing poetry etc. (I'll bet you good money that more poetry books are bought in Reykjavik than in Miami or Rio despite the vast population differential.) 
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Is there a lesson here for other countries? I don't know. Iceland's success seems to be due to its unique geography and literary history, but maybe if we could encourage kids to seek out their local bookstore or library it would help. Having children learn a musical instrument is also good idea and when schools in the UK, Australia and America stopped having kids memorize poetry by heart it was, in my opinion, an enormous mistake. Finally it's nice that young people play sport but watching sport on TV is, let's face it, not a terribly productive use of their time. 
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If you ask me it all comes back to the bookshops and the libraries. Books fire imaginations. Cicero said that a room without books is like a body without a soul and one of my favourite quotes on creativity is from Werner Herzog - when someone asked Herzog how he could become a film-maker like him some day Herzog replied instantly: "Read. Read. Read." Quite.